The Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca – and Arequipa – the white city

Lake Titicaca and the city of Puno on its shores, is around 390 kilometres south of Cusco on the Altiplano (high Plateau) towards Bolivia, roughly a 10 hour trip by road or train.

The train to Puno from Cusco leaves from Wanchaq Railway Station and you need to have your ticket and be on board at least 30 minutes before the train departs.

PeruRail operates the trains heading from Cusco to Puno about three days of the week for the long journey on the Andean Explorer. The train has both luxury carriages with panorama windows to take in the great scenery and also cheaper carriages and seats for backpackers. There is food and meal service on-board.

The trip might be long, but it also allows you to really see the high grasslands, alpacas, small villages and towns along the way, so an interesting journey to take. There are also buses that head to Puno from Cusco too.

Certainly it is possible to fly to Puno from Cusco or Lima, and this can be an interesting flight too. You would also be landing at the Aeropuerto Internacional Inca Manco Juliana Airport, the 9th highest airport in the world at 3826 metres above sea level, an experience in itself. The airport is located about 30 minutes from the centre of Puno in Juliana.

Puno itself is a pretty basic Peruvian town with a Cathedral, central ‘Plaza de Armas’ and a few small museums, but it does have a number of festivals during the year and it is the best place to base yourself to see the Floating Islands on Lake Titicaca, the high mountain lake that covers a surface  area of around 8400 square kilometres.

Tours will take you to see the Uros Indian villages that are located on reed islands in the Lake.

While the Uros Indian villages are in some ways quite touristic, they are also real, with the people living on the islands still living a traditional life, growing potatoes, fishing and making a living selling their absolutely beautiful weavings and other craft work. Many Uros Indians these days also live on the mainland too.

Apparently when the Spanish explorers first came across the Uros people on their islands, they first saw them late in the day, so decided to come back in the morning, by which time the islands had disappeared!

The islands are made up of a thick matt of Totora reeds that grow in the shallows with the mass of reeds maybe a metre or so thick. On top of this reed built island are small huts built on top of the reeds, with small plots of soil on top of the reeds too where they grow potatoes, some corn and other vegetables. The men mostly fish from their reed boats also made from reeds while the women sit, weave and knit, selling their craftwork to tourists. You will also see reed boats on the northern coast beaches of Peru too, thousands of kilometres away – see ‘Welcome to Peru’ pages on this website

There are also a few solid ground islands in Lake Titicaca too – Taquile Island and Amantani Island being two of the closest ones. Both islands can be visited by boat from Puno, and also exist on the basis of fishing and small cropping and more often through purchases by tourists of their craftwork.

While you certainly can bargain for a purchase, don’t bargain too hard, as these people really do depend on the Tourist dollars and Soles to make a living.

The floating islands are certainly the main drawcard for tourists coming to this part of Peru, with most either travelling on to Bolivia and Las Pas from Puno or heading back towards the coast and Arequipa, a city with a population of around 800,000 people.

Arequipa – The White City

Arequipa is a city built by the Spanish in the 1600’s and 1700’s using ‘Sillar stone’ – a white volcanic stone found here in Arequipa. Some buildings also date back to the 1500’s, including the Cathedral that was first constructed around 1560, although most of what you see now dates back to 1868 when it was restored.

There are around 250 Spanish Colonial buildings including a number of churches monasteries that were built using this white stone and hence the description of the city as the ‘White City’.

The city is located on the Rio Chili and dominating the landscape are three massive volcanos – Pichu Pichu Volcano with its seven peaks and 5664 metres above sea level, Chachani Volcano which is 6000 Metres above sea level and El Misti Volcano which is 5822 metres above sea level. The city itself is 2335 Metres above sea level, so has a much lower altitude than Cusco, Puno and the other cities on the Altoplano. Just seeing the Volcanoes from a distance is awe inspiring, let along trying to climb up them.

It is possible to climb these volcanos and in Arequipa, check with the Tourist office to find a tour group organiser. These are not easy climbs and being high altitude you will also be subject to rapid changes in the weather as you climb and with the top of the Volcanoes snow-capped or cloud covered. All three of these Volcanos are currently dormant, but there is an active Volcano called Ubinas that is about 95 kilometres inland from Arequipa. Arequipa has over the years also had its share of earth quakes too.

As much as the city itself is interesting and has all the facilities of a big city, it is also the surrounding desolate landscape that is amazing to see and you will definitely want to stop a number of times to photograph the Volcanoes, Vicunas, Llamas, Alpacas and even catch a glimpse of a condor flying over you. The Reserva Nacional de Aguada Blanca is located here too -  an area of around 3700 square kilometres set aside as a National Park to protect the landscape, birds and animals that live here. There are also small villages dotted across the landscape and stopping in any of these will give you a glimpse into the life of the people who live here.

Arequipa is popular as a place mountain biking and also to go white water rafting and kayaking on the Chili River. The word ‘Chili’ in the Aymara language means ‘rattle’ – so named after the sound of the fast flowing river as it comes down the rapids. The river is used for rafting and kayaking down 7 kilometres of the river, the season being between April and November. During the wet season after November, the river can be subject to flood. You can also go rafting on the Colca River in the Colca Canyon (see below).

The city is renowned for its good food and restaurants. Many foreigners also come here to learn Spanish or to attend cooking classes too.

The city built its business on trading Alpaca wool and today it still is a good place to see lots of Alpaca clothing and craftwork. There is a big central market here too where you will see and be able to purchase Peruvian ponchos, hats and other craftwork.

There are a number of museums and art galleries and most places of interest are in and around the Plaza de Armas and nearby streets. It is worth doing a city tour to see and learn more about the city and its highlights.

As with all towns and places in Peru, you need to be conscious of your safety at all times and be ‘street smart’ and careful of people begging, or soliciting in the street to sell you something or take you to a great shop where there are bargains. The city, like many cities in Peru has a ‘Tourist Police Force’ – and it is worth asking them any questions or concerns that you have.

One of the highlights of coming to Arequipa is to see the Colca Canyon a truly amazing site, the desert canyon said to be twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the USA. The canyon is 160+ Kilometres from Arequipa and you need to make the journey there and back on a two day trip to make the most of it, rather than a very tiring one day trip where you spend around 7 to 8 hours of your day just getting there and back. Colca River Rafting is possible too and when you are in Arequipa, check with a few different tour operators to see who you think will provide the best service and vehicles to travel in.

The small town of Chivay is closest to the Canyon and you will most likely stay here. Close by too there is a viewing place to see the giant Condor birds in their natural habitat, as well as the Uyu Uyu Archaeological site and the La Calera Hot Springs. For adventurers, there is even a Zipline over part of the canyon too.

While the Colca Canyon is a great spectacle, the deepest canyon in this area is the Cotahuasi Canyon which is said to be the world’s deepest, dropping downwards from the land some 3535 metres. It is a pretty amazing sight to see, but is also more difficult and time consuming to get there.   

Arequipa is certainly worth the effort to get here, and from Arequipa you could make your way to the coast and then travel south to Chile or north to see the Nasca Lines and then on to Lima, or travel inland to Cusco or Lake Titicaca and then south to Bolivia.

There is always something to see in Peru and hopefully some of the information on these pages will help you plan a great travel experience here in Peru.

Happy travels - Viajes felices

Geoff Stuart

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